CAMBRIDGE — In 1961, the Harvard ethnographic filmmaker and photographer Robert Gardner did field work in the western half of New Guinea. Now 87, he went on to have a legendary career.
To honor his achievements, the university’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology established the Robert Gardner fellowship in photography. Its fourth recipient, Stephen Dupont, traveled to the island (in his case, the eastern half) 50 years after Gardner did. “Stephen Dupont: New Guinea Portraits and Diaries” is the product of that journey, as well as previous visits. It runs at the Peabody through Sept. 2.
Dupont is Australian. Only a hundred miles separate Australia and New Guinea at the nearest point between them. Yet Sydney, where Dupont lives, is 1,700 miles from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, the island’s eastern half (the west belongs to Indonesia). That sense of simultaneous proximity and distance — a difficult but highly useful balance for a photographer to maintain — informs the exhibition.
Inevitably, Dupont is an outsider; yet he’s an engaged outsider, full of a calm, clear-eyed curiosity. The result is that these photographs never feel clinical or reductive. There’s not just a sense of place in his work but also something that matters even more: a sense of the people who populate that place. Indicative of his approach is how he takes portraits. Dupont poses his subjects in front of a white or black cloth backdrop. That’s common enough practice. It’s a way to make sure the subject stands out and there’s nothing distracting in the picture. What’s not common is that Dupont usually makes sure at least some of the background is visible — so we get both the person and at least some idea of the setting.
Those persons range from highland tribesmen with painted faces and in traditional costume to “raskols,” or urban gang members. A man wearing a KFC baseball cap is as likely to turn up in a photograph here as someone in a tribal mask. “There’s so much change taking place right now all over Papua New Guinea,” Dupont writes. “The amount of money flowing into the communities there is unheard of; it’s a total boom.” Every large settlement, he adds, “feels like a border town. They all seem to have this frontier feeling — transit places, people coming and going.”
Dupont shoots in both color and black and white. He lets the subject matter determine which. In a photograph of a man and his young son, there’s a parrot perched on the man’s head. The image, which is in black and white, is startling. In color, the bird’s plumage would make it shocking. A photograph of a man drumming at a Sing-Sing, or tribal competition, is in color. The yellow of his drum makes the way his body is painted half white and half black all the more striking. He also lets the subject determine the format: 35mm, panoramic, digital, Polaroid. Technique, per se, doesn’t interest Dupont as much as documenting these people and places does.
There are about 124 photographs in the show. Sixty-six are hung. The rest are in display cases. None are framed or matted. That sense of informality (and immediacy) is one reason why such a large show in such a small space — a single room and alcove — can feel so alive without seeming hectic or overstuffed. There is a hectic feeling, in a good way, in the alcove. Its three walls are covered with blown-up images from Dupont’s 2011 field diaries: writings, contact sheets, Polaroids, drawings, news clippings. They show us Dupont’s imaginative process at work. A kind of self-portrait, they make the portraits that much more vivid.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.